ZAP2IT BY JACQUELINE CUTLER - September 3, 2012 12:00 PM ET
For Mrs. Rogers to sign off on a new show, it must promote her late husband's values. And the youngest of viewers, in this case 2- to-4-year-olds, must be entertained.
The new PBS show Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood debuts Monday, Sept. 3 (check local listings). It's a sweet, not treacly animated show featuring two related 11-minute episodes and a live-action short film. Each weekday episode gently delivers moral lessons. Voodoo Highway supplies songs with the necessary catchiness.
It's a fair bet that the parents of the target audience grew up on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," and they will recognize the characters' heritage.
Daniel Tiger is the son of the original show's Daniel Striped Tiger. His best friend is O the Owl, who lives with his Uncle X in a tree. He's also pals with Katerina Kittycat, daughter of the original show's Henrietta Pussycat, and with Prince Wednesday, the youngest member of the neighborhood's royal family.
"There was no doubt in my mind that the need was there," Joanne Byrd Rogers tells Zap2it. "They missed Mister Rogers' values."
After being married to Fred Rogers for more than 50 years, she describes those values as "honesty, truth, loyalty and doing the best you can."
"I do think Fred tried to present that without being too religious about it," she says.
The new show was years in the making. Executive producers Kevin Morrison of The Fred Rogers Company and Angela C. Santomero, creator of "Super Why!" and "Blue's Clues," were ideal choices to bring this to life, she says.
"They all speak Freddish, as we say," Rogers says.
Mister Rogers was the first TV educator to break that fourth wall and talk directly to his young audience, Santomero says. A die-hard "Mister Rogers" fan, Santomero styles her shows in the same vein of kindness, stressing cooperation and respect.
Daniel, as evidenced in the pilot, has a distinct look. Though animation can be flat, this has more depth to it because Daniel has a fuzzy texture and wears a red knit sweater. He rides the trolley through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
The pilot teaches how to deal with disappointment. It's Daniel's birthday, and he and his mom go to the bakery to select a cake. He chooses a tiger cake (which seems slightly cannibalistic, but it is a delightful episode) and insists on carrying it. Naturally, he doesn't hold the box steady, and the cake gets smushed.
In the second cartoon, Daniel and pals go on a picnic, and little things -- but not so little to preschoolers -- go wrong: ants, a deflated ball and rain. But they learn to cope.
The lesson for both segments, repeated in the song's chorus, is: "When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good."
The show does a lovely job of showing what is of concern to preschoolers such as a doctor's visit or the first day of school. It urges expressing those feelings, then learning what to do with them.
Talking about Rogers' compendium of values, Santomero says, "We wanted to be as clear as A-B-C and 1-2-3: (It's a) we-can-celebrate show; it is a very lovey-lovey show."
Santomero was so inspired by Rogers as a child, she "was in the television," she says. "I thought he was talking to me."
She earned a master's degree in child developmental education from Columbia University and has worked in the field since. As of the end of July, the 72nd episode was completed, Santomero says. Each script goes through at least five rewrites, and that's after brainstorming, research and testing them with preschoolers.
"Unlike a lot of other shows, this doesn't have a curriculum based on literacy or numeracy," Morrison says. "It deals with all issues of growing up.
"You don't spend a lot of time worrying about whether your child will learn the alphabet, but you do spend time worrying if they will be able to socialize in the sandpit," he says, using the British term for sandbox. "We have a whole sermon to give on that subject. Social and emotional education is extremely valuable."
Clearly, Morrison is not dismissing the benefits of learning letters and numbers on companion PBS Kids shows. But a program devoted to helping civilize children is a necessity.
"You need to know how to socialize and sit down when the teacher says, 'Sit down,' " he says. "Our mission is to make that an important focus."
All involved with the show say they expect parents will watch with their toddlers.
"We disguised the show to be watched by a parent and child," Morrison says.
For her part, Mrs. Rogers hopes viewers take "what was offered with the best intentions and can see Fred in it, and the parents can see Fred in it. I don't think it would matter a whit if someone had never seen 'Mister Rogers.' "
"The vision was to promote Fred's legacy and promote the themes and curriculum to kids today," Santomero says. "I hope I can touch one child the way he did me."